The prison guard brought a letter to the jail cell. The three young men inside were very surprised, for none of them had received mail or visitors for weeks. One prisoner had been charged with murder; another had been arrested as a tramp. The third—and youngest—was an American who had been brought to the prison because he was distributing missionary tracts and telling the people in Austria about Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thomas Biesinger was alone the morning two police officers pulled him out of bed and informed him that a Protestant minister had signed a complaint against him. He was taken to a small dirty jail cell that was furnished with only three hard-straw mattresses. No food or drink was given to him for more than twenty-four hours, and he wondered if he would ever live to leave the place.
The two prisoners already confined in the cell and many of the guards spoke only in ridicule to the heartsick and homesick young elder. They believed he was a leader from America who had come to Austria to persuade people to become Mormon slaves.
Now the three inmates watched the guard wave the letter in the air. No one moved. Finally the guard motioned for Elder Biesinger to take the envelope.
A letter! What an unexpected break in the long days that had stretched into more than a month of lonely imprisonment.
The letter was about Elder Hammer, his former companion who had gone to Germany two weeks before Elder Biesinger’s arrest. The letter reported that Elder Hammer was critically ill with smallpox and desperately in need of help.
Elder Biesinger begged for permission to visit his friend for just a few days. He promised to return and spend extra time in jail, but permission was denied. Finally the jailer agreed to let Elder Biesinger write a letter to his companion, provided the prisoner would go before the judge and receive approval for the letter to be sent.
All day and all night Elder Biesinger offered fervent silent prayers for his sick companion and for guidance in writing the letter. At last he began to put on paper the thoughts that came to him. He promised in the name of Jesus Christ that through the power of the priesthood Elder Hammer would live and be able to return to his family in America.
The next morning the young prisoner appeared before the judge. When the judge read the unusual letter, he was silent for a long time. He looked at the young man before him and then reread the letter. Finally the judge finished reading, was silent a moment, and then quietly gave permission for the letter to be sent.
Although there had been little hope for Elder Hammer’s recovery, the promise given in the letter was soon fulfilled!
Some weeks later Elder Biesinger was released from prison, and he began once more to try to teach the people in Austria who would listen. One person who listened and was later baptized a member of the Church was a police official who had been greatly impressed by the missionary while he was in prison.
Before long another elder was sent from the Swiss and German Mission so Elder Biesinger would again have a companion, but soon after his arrival the two young men were visited by police officers who gave them only twenty-four hours to pack and leave the country.
After World War I, Elder Biesinger was again called to go back to Austria. This time he stayed long enough to help establish a strong mission in that country.
Today many people in Austria are members of the Church. There are branches in Vienna, Braunau, Innsbruck, Salzburg, and other areas. Church members are viewed with much more favor by the government and other people than they were when Thomas Biesinger wrote his remarkable letter from a dirty little jail cell and blessed a desperately ill elder.